Standing up against a corporate mining project

By Nick Vander Puy
Photos by DKakkak
Moore Park Road, Iron County, WI

Last spring when the Harvest Education Learning Project (HELP)  in the Penokees of Northern Wisconsin got going to create awareness of the impact of iron ore mining we’d often walk down Moore Park Road to the Tyler Forks River past a log cabin  hunting camp. We’d look down the driveway at a lift for raising deer, hundreds of maple trees, a maple sugar shack, burner and flat pan next to modest log cabin with some solar panels and a genuine Finnish sauna.


A sign on a maple tree said, Rustle Bucks. We hoped to someday meet him and learn more about him and his camp.

Like us, Buccanero is opposed to the mountain top removal of the Penokee range. His Finnlander  people have lived on Moore Park Road since 1858. We became fast friends and allies.

As the fall wore on Buccanero contributed both meat and firewood to HELP and advised us on how to survive the approaching arctic weather. Sometimes at night he’d hear the wind in the trees and say, “Get ready. The White Wizard of the North is coming.”  And sure enough right after deer season the heavy cold and winds started.

During this past Polar Vortex winter Mole Lake Chippewa tribal member, Larry Ackley, his wife Jen and I spent the winter in some wigwams and wall tents at the HELP camp in the Penokees.

We received some advice from a Mole Lake spiritual leader to stop the mine we needed to offer kinickinnic and make maple sugar. The HELP camp spokesman Paul DeMain and Oneida/Ojibwe, Melvin Gasper of LCO and I motored to the Fond du lac rez to meet with the Savage brothers about tapping trees the following spring in the Penokees.

After consulting with the Fond du Lac sugar makers about Indigenous knowledge and traditional food ways, marketing and  how to make maple cream and other value added products DeMain came up with the name “Penokee Gold” for our maple syrup product. The name will not be patented so that those from the Penokee Range region will be able to use various forms of the name for their syrups if they want to.

Buccanero wants to market his own brand somehow promoting the road into the Penokees and Tyler Forks River further down from the HELP camp that has become famous for its resistance the mining project, Moore Park Road.

We began to assemble taps, drills, flat pans, filters and a treaty kettle. We sawed some firewood.

As the winter waned and the wood peckers began to alert us to the rising sap, we asked Bad River elder Joe Rose Sr. to conduct a ceremony. Around fifty people attended the event.

After Joe Dan Rose sang a victory song we moved across the road to Steven Fiene’s land to tap some trees and hang buckets. As he was drilling a tree one young Bad River man said, “I’ve been waiting to do this for a thousand years.” We did mistake some ash and oak for maple trees which usually happens. At least this year we didn’t tap any electric poles thinking they’re current trees.

We put up around one hundred and fifty buckets between Rusty Buck’s land and the HELP camp on Steve Fiene’s property. We paid close attention to Rusty Buck’s sugar making procedures.

Rusty Buck starts off by cleaning all the buckets and flat pan. And he cuts the wood for the sugar bush a year in advance. He drills out a inch wide hole in tow side of his buckets. One hole allows the bucket to hang on spigot, the other allows air to help the sap pour easily

When the flat pan is filled to the top with a hundred gallons of sap he starts to boil. He pours all the buckets of sap through a metal frame supported filter bag into the pan. This is the first filtering. As the sap darkens and drives off the moisture he takes the large pan down to around five or six gallons of near syrup. Then he lifts the flat pan off the fire onto horses and filters again into a steel beer cooler. This beer cooler becomes the next boiler.

When the sap reaches around 219 degrees he filters again and cans the syrup. We made one pretty major mistake this year. We poured a gallon of syrup into a gallon jug with some soap residue we never washed out.  This ruined a gallon of precious syrup which we ended up putting back in the woods. I also took some of the syrup down to granulated and hard sugar. We finished with around eleven gallons of syrup and another ten pds or so of hard sugar.

Making sugar in the Penokees is not for the faint hearted.  We needed snow shoes to trudge through more than four feet of snow. We relied heavily on Steve Sohn, Andrea Ladenthin, Sandy Gokee, David Nevala and Joy Scheble for hauling buckets and making food. sometimes we’d hear bad words as some got a snow shoes stuck. And of course the project wasn’t completed until we ran the buckets and pan into the Mellen, Wisconsin city shop for steam cleaning.

We celebrated the sugar making season with well attended feast at HELP. Everybody in our community received a maple sugar cube from the maple trees in the Penokees.

The sugar season lasted about a month. We had three boils at camp. the  ice stayed on the lakes until mid-May.

The walleye jabbin’ season with spears and head lamps finally  got going  in the Gokee/Nevala household. Sandy Gokee is an enrolled member of the Red Cliff band of Lake Superior Chiippewa, while David is from Bad River. This year the two were able to fish together on Red Cliff declared water.

When we visited with Sandy and David we heard some kidding between the two about Sandy wanting to skipper the boat. David simply said, “There’s going to be only  one captain per voyage.”

Earlier in the week the two had been out on a lake near Cable. They harvested 77 walleye, but gave away most of their catch to elders and others who don’t have boats and equipment.

Sandy says, “We do this to get food, But it is heavily regulated. Every fish we catch is weighed and sexed. If we break any laws we get a pretty big ticket.”

Back in the ‘eighties, when the treaty rights of the Lake Superior Chippewa were affirmed by federal courts a near civil war resulted in Wisconsin, Cries of Timber Nigger, Spear a Pregnant Squaw, Save a Walleye” filled the landings and airwaves around Minocqua/Woodruff/Eagle River/Sayner/Rhinelander. Sandy Gokee wasn’t  born until 1991, but she remembers going through Minocqua as a young girl with her grandparents and seeing a tees-shirt with the image of an Indian head impaled on a spear. She asked her Grandmother, “Is that me?’

The landings and politics  have settled down over the past several years.

Sandy goes on, “The fact David and I can go out and harvest fish is because we’re standing on the back of some warriors who fought for our rights, but never picked up a gun or knife to retaliate.”

Spearfishing truly is a family affair. Earlier in the day Sandy’s Uncle Andy called up and said, “Sandra, let’s go fishing tonight.” They met Andy Gokee, who directs the Native American Studies department at UW Stevens Point for a night jbainn’ on Lake Owen.

David Nevala takes a break from the interview to charge his batteries, get the life jacketes together, fuel up and sharpen the spear.

We ask what do you do with fish guts? Sandy says, “We  drump the guts back in the woods on the rez for the eagles and other creatures. Then we go back and look for feathers.”

As the interview winds down Sandy goes to the frig and passes out some walleye filets for our next morning breakfast.

Walleye of course are not the only fish available to springtime harvesters. This spring we also pursued red horse suckers. We caught them with jigs and nite crawlers, thumped them in the head with a baseball bat and took them back to Rusty Buck’s home in Iron Belt for preparation.

We chopped off  the fishes tails and spilt the back until they flayed out like a butterfly. We scrubbed out the guts and  pickled the first batch with maple sugar, vinegar, onions  and pickling spice. It took about  week for the pickling. We tried to pace ourselves and not open the jars too early.Pickled fish is really good with crackers.

The second batch we brined and coated with maple sugar for a day inside a big ceramic crock. Then we smoked the fish on racks inside n old refrigerator over smoldering maple wood fire.

When the fish turned a nice caramel color we removed them from the smoker. We tore into the first batch and  like David and Sandy we shared the fish with our community.